This is a personal thing for me. But it’s also a conviction that applies to the branding work we do at KA+A. What’s true for individuals happens to be true for organizations. In fact, we’re finding that people tend to join organizations that share their root passions and vices, and that as we work with leaders, we reshape brands, and as we reshape brands, the organization influences lives…and heroes are emerging. If this line of thinking appeals to you – personally or in terms of how you relate to your business – I’d love to hear from you.

Rule #7: Heroes are Tyrants Made Cruel by Priests

The myths with which I’m at war in this rule:

  • That life is a “choose your own adventure” story.
  • That we can “win” by becoming something other than what we are.
  • That a false self can be a real self.

The terms in the rule:

  • Hero: a person who is applauded for sacrificial behaviors born from deep personal convictions.
  • Tyrant: a person who governs by oppressive, dictatorial, and ultimately selfish means that are rooted in a basic conviction that the person being governed is inadequate.
  • Cruel: harsh, unkind, merciless, bringing about pain.
  • Priest: a person who serves as gatekeeper or purveyor of God or a person’s most profound yearnings.

What I’ve learned.

Heroes don’t choose to be heroes for the sake of being heroes. They make their choices because they love something beautiful with a passion that inspires great response. The rule I try to live by is this: if I tell the story of a hero, I draw attention to the beautiful thing the hero sees – not to the heroic behavior.

To put a finer point on it, what made the firefighters who died on September 11th heroic was not that they died. What made them heroic was their choice about what constituted a life worth living. To them, there was a beauty and honor in radical service that was worth pursuing, and worth the cost. Dying doesn’t serve anybody – but living with the sort of passion required to be a firefighter benefits everybody.

When people tell stories of heroes for the sake of inspiring particular behaviors, they hold up an example that communicates a type of dare for the audience. They communicate, in effect, “if you do something like this, you will be a more valuable human being.” This communication also draws attention away from the beautiful thing that inspired the original hero, and promises the would-be hero that they can have glory – not from following the beauty, but from forcing the behavior from themselves.

We’ve all known people who strive to be like their heroes. A few of them see beyond their heroes to get a glimpse of the beautiful things that held their heroes’ attention, but very often they strive to model their own behaviors after the behaviors of their heroes. This way of life slowly saps their confidence – and their authenticity – as they shape themselves into mere copies of a noble original.

It’s a natural process, of course. Kids want to grow up to be firemen, or cops, or teachers. Children aspire to be like their parents or older siblings. A dose of this – examples that inspire a person along a course for a time – is part of what living in the company of other humans entails, and it’s a big and good part of how societies are shaped.

Things get perverted, though, when the priest gets involved. In the straight religious sense, Jesus is the ultimate hero and example so long as his example does what he said he was here to do – facilitate connection with God. Jesus is a great example if his example points a person to the beauty (intimacy with the Father) to which Jesus was devoted. Jesus becomes the ultimate tyrant, however, when priests (literal priests or anyone who would speak as gatekeeper to God) intervene and hold Jesus’ behavior as the standard by which others should be measured.

There are heroes and priests in every segment of our lives – not just the religious ones – and they’re all tied to deep and meaningful parts of us. Every person is of fantastic worth, and what we do with our lives is hugely meaningful. There is no such thing as a secular moment. The heroes may take the form of business role models, and the priests may show up as mentors, investors, or bosses. Heroes may show up on The Biggest Loser, and the priest may arrive in Spandex, yelling at you.

What priests ultimately convey is that until your behavior measures up to the behavior of your hero, you are less than your hero, and the distance between your hero’s standard and your own behavior is the measure of your inadequacy. And so long as your inadequacy exists, so too will the pressure to be something other than who you actually are. And so long as you strive to be something other than who you actually are, you will be tempted to cheat, will prioritize poorly, and will remain dangerous and jagged to the people around you.

Priests, whether they’re motivated by good intentions or by a drive for power, want you to reshape your behavior, but they are not oriented to having your “graduate” from their influence because you get a clear view of the beautiful thing heroes see. Priests want zealous sheep, conformist managers, and skinny clients…who still need shepherds, investors, and trainers. The difference between a priest and a friend is the clarity of their view of the beautiful thing, and their desire to have you love it as well.

You cannot sanctify (consecrate, bless, purify, make holy) a false self. It is not a real thing. A false self – when set to become a hero, and successful at achieving behavior that only looks like heroic behavior – is only capable of stealing your life for a false cause.

You have a true identity, and it is wrapped around a gift born within you for you to offer the world. It takes work to chisel away the marble to uncover the sculpture within, but it is there. You are already a hero. The secret is in grooming your passion for the beautiful thing that will draw easy and automatic heroic action from you.

Marketing (just as a lot of church programming) loves to leverage heroes – because marketing is about generating a response by whatever means are required to create responses. It’s extremely difficult to be a good marketer without falling prey to Machiavellian temptations. Marketers are almost always priests – to their customers, teams, and their brands. Marketing without a solid identity and a clear view of the brand’s passion could hardly be anything else.

Until you discover the passion for which you are willing to live, the best you – and your brand – are likely to do is run, or send others, into collapsing buildings thinking dying is the point. And, it is worth noting, the more dying seems like the heroic thing, the more cowardly a sane person will become (which only makes the pain of the tyranny, and the sense of separation from God or the beautiful thing, that much worse).

So tell your hero stories carefully.